Episode 156 | Leveraging Services to Increase Cash Flow using a Hybrid SaaS Model

Show Notes


[00:00] Mike: This is Startups for the Rest of Us: Episode 156.

[00:04] Music

[00:11] Mike: Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it.

[00:19] Mike: I’m Mike.

[00:20] Dave: And I’m Dave.

[00:21] Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How are you doing this week, Dave?

[00:26] Dave: I’m doing pretty good Mike. How about yourself?

[00:29] Mike: Not too bad. Rob is touring Europe at the moment. So post MicroConf Europe, Rob and his family decided they were going to spend some time in Europe and we got almost enough episodes recorded in advance of his trip to cover. Dave I’ve invited you on to kind of bridge that gap a little bit, so why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself and why you were entitled to be here I’ll say.

[00:56] Dave: My name’s Dave Rodenbaugh. I’m a long time member of the Micropreneur Academy which Rob and Mike run of course. And I’ve launched a few products using what I’ve actually learned in there. Right now I am currently running two WordPress plugins. One is called AWPCP which stands for Another WordPress Classifieds Plugin and this is way for WordPress sites to add on classifieds into their content easily and quickly. I also run one for business directories, same kind of deal which allows people to add yelp like features or yellow pages directories to their current content. And since content just came these days, everybody wants something new and different on their sites.

[01:38] I also wrote an eBook about buying websites on Flippa which I think is actually been mentioned already in the podcast a couple of times and this is a means for bootstrapping your own business without having to build it yourself and that’s on howtobuyawebsite.org. So I’ve been bootstrapping my businesses for about three years now and I have an alter ego as a software consultant and enterprise java land. I haven’t quite weaned myself off that yet but it’s certainly my goal to do that. Rob, specifically told me that I needed to be off of consulting by next MicroConf although I don’t know exactly what the punishment is going to be. I’m trying to shoot for that right now. We’ll see how it goes.

[02:21] Very excited to fill in here this week for Rob. Those are quite some big shoes literally and metaphorically to fill. I mean have you actually seen Rob’s shoe size? I’ll try to be a good sidekick for you this round though Mike. I can’t promise my jokes are any better though.

[02:35] Mike: I’ll go into the typical updates that I usually give. The first on is for AuditShark. I’ve on boarded a couple of new users over the past couple weeks and had some direction conversations with them, trying to get to the root of what’s stopping them from paying for the products. Just doing the typical customer development stuff. And right now primarily looks like reporting is the issue. So they’re looking for some very specific reports that need to integrate into their workflow of how they’re going to use the product and how they’re going to integrate it in into their business. So it’s nice to see that the things that they’re asking for are all on the roadmap but the downside is those things that they’re asking for are on the roadmap. They’re just not quite done yet.

[03:13] I did manage to get the entire tutorial mechanism that Peldi had commented needed to be in place back at MicroConf Europe. I got that into the product. So that’s there now and people can use that and it actually looks really, really sleek. And by the time this episode goes live, I’ll be at the business software conference and I know a bunch of people who are going to be there, also be really good to touch base with those guys again.

[03:39] And then the last thing is that Corey Maass from thebirdy.com he’s launched a new venture aimed at helping people who have more money than time to get their products off the ground. He has a website that he’s put together called builtfromideas.com and it aims to put products from conception to MVP status in about four weeks. Obviously there’s a charge for this. It’s not like he’s doing it for free but it’s essentially a new consulting business that he’s putting together and it sounds like a great concept. I’m really interested in hearing how well it turns out because I talked to a lot of people who definitely have more money than time.

[04:11] And this could very well be a way for them to get a solid developer in place who they talk to, have the discussions with and kind of convey their ideas and bat it back and forth and really collaborate on it as opposed to the traditional true outsourcing model where you hand everything off and hope that what you give back is what you need to succeed with that product.

[04:32] Dave: That sounds pretty cool.

[04:33] Music

[04:36] Mike: So for today’s episode, last year at the Business of Software Conference Gail Goodman had talked about the long slow SaaS ramp of death and we’ve mention it a couple of times. But today we’re going to talk about some ways that you can short circuit that ramp. This is inspired by a blog post that somebody tweeted to me. We’re going to go through this blog post and talk a little bit about how you can jumpstart your SaaS business to bridge that cash flow gap.

[05:00] So within this article it talks about having a certain number of customers and trying to get the six figures whit it. If you just look at the raw numbers, if you have 200 customers each paying about $50 a month then you’ll have about $10,000 a month in revenue which gives you about $200,000 a year plus around $20,000 for yearly expenses, you can almost brute force your way to 200 customers with phone calls, trade shows, meet ups, cold call and that kind of thing. The problem is that getting there can be a painfully long and slow growth curve even if you do brute force that number.

[05:30] Brute forcing it, it can get you there faster but it is still going to take you a while. It could still take you months, upwards of 6, 10, 12 months in order to get to that point until you are self sufficient. So Dave, why don’t you talk a little bit about the basic cash flow problem?

[05:46] Dave: Well sure. The cash flow problem that you have in any sort of software service business is that let’s say you have a business where you’re making $30 a month for a customer and let’s just also say for the sake of argument that your lifetime value of that customer is basically two years worth of revenue. So that’s like $720 worth of revenue that you’re going to get out of them. You’re only getting that in chunks of $30 a month at a time. So what you fundamentally have here is a cash flow issue. All the value of that customer is really locked up in the future of the service that you’re providing to them.

[06:29] Now, there are some ways to shortcut that, in fact this is one of the things that Jason Cohen had mentioned at the last MicroConf and that is to have an annual plan. So you say okay, if you buy a year’s worth of this service upfront, I’ll discount it a month or two months out of there. So instead of paying $360 maybe you’re only paying $300 and you get the entire month. That helps you build some cash up front and it also give the customer a discount so it’s sort of win-win for both of you.

[07:00] The problem is not every customer of yours is going to take advantage of this and still you’re going to have this cash flow problem one way or the other. You might be able to get a little extra cash out of it but you still have the challenge of trying to get new people on board to your service and you got to get them through the sales cycle and you’ve got to convince them of the value proposition and you’ve got to have compelling marketing.

[07:22] So all of that becomes a real drag on your business. It’s really hard to keep expanding your business and adding new features and things like that. If you simply don’t have the cash to pay for it upfront. So one of the things that we’d like to talk about today is how the hybrid model, what we’re calling the hybrid model can solve this cash flow problem.

[07:43] Mike: One of the issues with getting started there that you kind eluded to was the fact that when you are trying to acquire these customers even if you’re not brute forcing it, if you’re doing some of the traditional marketing efforts, you incur some sort of cost to acquire these customers and hopefully you don’t have a very high cost of acquisition for these customers but it still does cost money to acquire them. And that’s part of the cash flow problem as well because that factors into how quickly you can acquire customers because if it cost you $50 to acquire a customer and it takes you a year to make $50 from them, then you can only land so many customers before you’re broke.

[08:24] Then you have to gather money from your existing customer base and once you’ve done that then you can put it towards acquiring more customers. Especially with a Saas model, getting people with an annual plan will help overcome that. But as Dave said, you can’t get everybody on an annual plan.

[08:40] Dave: Sure. it’s even a little worse than that Mike because if you’re having to factor expenses into this whole thing, cash flow is even a bigger problem because it tends to mean that you’re going to emphasize your free channels of acquisition over your paid channels or you may not even have the option to do the paid channels because you simply don’t have enough cash on hand to go and figure out okay, well if I ran this ad words campaign, will I actually be able to pay that back if it’s costing me $25 a click on these ad words key words, am I going to be able to get enough customers out of that? I mean there’s some testing that has to go on during this process of ramping your SaaS app. Right?

[09:22] Mike: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s actually one of the things that pushes people away from doing any sort of paid acquisition is the fact that you don’t know if you’re going to get your money back. And even if you are reasonably sure that you’re going to get your money back, the question is how long is it going to take for you to get your money back?

[09:39] And that’s a very hard question to answer especially when our your cost for acquiring those customers tends to be high and you’re looking at you revenue the following month and let’s say you laid out $2,000 to $4,000 to do some paid acquisition. In the next month you showed increase in revenue of $300 or $500 or something like that and you look at that and said well, I’m not going to get my money back for another six months so I can’t even afford to do more paid acquisition next month. Even though just looking at those numbers you can tell that it would benefit you in the long run but you just don’t have the cash to be able to do that sort of thing. Does this kind of imply that there’s something fundamentally wrong with SaaS?

[10:18] Dave: Well, no. It turns out of course that there’s not. SaaS is just very, very hard to get things started up in a smooth and running fashion. Right? I think the term that Rob likes to use and the term that was thrown around in Gail Goodman’s talk was the fact that this is a flywheel. A flywheel is something that doesn’t just spin up very quickly or spin down very quickly. It’s slow, it’s heavy and once you start it moving, it tends to keep moving at that same speed. So the problem is you’ve got to dump enough time and energy to get that flywheel cranking to start with in order to get your cash coming out on the other side and that’s the hard part of the SaaS right?

[11:01] Mike: Definitely. So one of the things you can do to overcome that inertia problem with the SaaS flywheel is actually to add services and one of the things that I think is very common early on when you have a SaaS business is that it can be very difficult for your potential customers to understand the value of that service especially if you’re not laying it out very clearly for them.

[11:24] How many people are actually reading the marketing collateral that you’re putting together on our website? I get a lot of people coming to my website that clearly they’re not reading the FAQ and they end up on the chat widget and start asking questions that the people who are manning that chat widget are trained to read the FAQ and try their best to answer people’s questions. And it’s amazing the number of people who come through and will look at that and either send emails directly into through the support page or go to the chat widget and start asking the same questions that already appear on the FAQ.

[11:57] Dave: Absolutely. Something else that takes a while to get that slide wheel running is the fact that just getting your messaging and your value propositions right so that it aligns with the problem that the customer has on the first place, that’s a very iterative thing. I remember just listening on this podcast with Rob talking about Drip. All the various things that he had to go through in order to find the right channel to acquire his customers.

[12:23] He started out with some deal on Appsumo but even he said at the time that was sort of one time test to find out if that was actually a good channel of acquisition or not and I think the conclusion that he came to was that it wasn’t. But it certainly cost him a good amount of money to go out there and get that setup and sell all of those things on Appsumo because you don’t get 100% of that revenue right back.

[12:47] So in order to come up with an effective key word campaign, what you really need to do is you need to make sure that you’ve got catchy titles and something that really clicks with the customer’s pain. And you’re not going to get that right out of the gate. I mean you have to refine that each time. So you put something on ad words, you test that out, you see if your customers respond to it and if they don’t then you have to go back and tweak and you don’t really know exactly how long that’s going to take for you to come up with the exact message that’s going to resonate with your customer. So that costs time and it costs money.

[13:23] Mike: Yeah. I think one of the things that resonates with a lot of people especially over the last two MicroConfs where Rob has given his talk about what he did with HitTail was just how long it took for him to get to the point where he really felt like he got his messaging correct and I mean he basically laid it out in a chart and you said here’s the part where I was learning. And basically the growth graph is almost flat and then here’s where I was building and it starts to rise a little bit and then here’s where he was scaling and that process took him a very, very long time.

[13:55] I mean a lot of people come out of the gate, they launch a Saas business and they think that it’s going to be successful very, very quickly and the fact is it turns out that’s really not the case. And it doesn’t matter how large your mailing list is. It doesn’t matter how well qualified that list is. It depends a lot on time and that’s just kind of the nature of the beast because even if you do have a large mailing list you get a lot of people who signed in, they won’t necessarily stick around. They’re going to be basing their opinions off of the initial messaging and unless you nail it right out of the gate, the chances are good that they’re not going to stick around for a long period of time. And that process as you said, it’s very iterative.

[13:34] So let’s start talking about some of the benefits of offering a hybrid model. A hybrid Saas solution gives you long term recurring revenue while the services will help bridge the cash flow gap. And in some ways those services are acting as consulting income but there is a very big differentiator between value added services and consulting and more specifically that is the rate at which you’re charging people. You want the customer to be thinking really, really inexpensive but highly optimized outsourcing. That’s what you want them to think and that’s how you essentially need to present it to them.

[15:06] And these services that you’re offering can drive a lot more value for individual customers in the short term for three very important reasons. The first one is it’s more cost effective for the customer than hiring as consulting. The second is this offering can be customized on the fly without having to write code. And when you’re writing an application, it’s always expensive to write code. That’s why everybody or at least most people design their products first, do mockups, things like that. It’s a lot easier to change things in design phase than it is after you’ve already written a code.

[15:36] So if a customer says hey I need you to do XYZ, the software may not do that but that’s okay because if you have the capability to kind of build it on the fly then it doesn’t matter. And the third thing is that it reduces the risk of the customer for investing their time, money and effort into learning your product but not get in the desired results. If you’re working alongside of them, it gives you a lot of flexibility and a lot of leeway to get them the information and the data they need along with the results that they need without writing the code or relying on the products to do all of those things which it may not have the capabilities to do just yet.

[16:11] Dave: So Mike, in the discussions that I saw from MicroConf Europe I heard somebody mentioned something about a concierge service. Is that what you’re talking about here?

[16:19] Mike: I don’t think so. So in MicroConf Europe there was a lot of discussion about a concierge service and I almost see that concierge service is a fancy way of saying human assistant on boarding. You eventually do things for free for the customers to get them on boarded because you know that the lifetime value for those customers is going to be high enough to justify the initial labor cost but you want to be able to get them on board and you’re trying to decrease the barriers to that entry so that you can start getting their feedback and leveraging their monthly payments.

[16:50] And obviously at scale, this doesn’t work. But early on you need to get them on boarded and get them pass the painful parts of the on boarding process while you iron out those wrinkles. Offering services along with your product is completely different than a concierge service because you’re charging people for the value of the human labor that you’re providing not necessarily the service itself. Obviously you’re going to charge them for whatever your service is but you’re charging them specifically for the services that you’re offering and you can price these based on value.

[17:20] Presumably you’re working with these customers hand in hand because you’re trying to jumpstart their business a bit by leveraging the product you’ve build and it does give you that immediate cash flow but more importantly than that, it gives you knowledge of exactly how they need to integrate your product into their business processes. So it lets you get that inside view that you would probably not have if they just signed for your service and were paying you $50 or$100 a month because you’re working hand in hand with them. You’re going to get that inside view of exactly how it integrates with their processes, what tools do they use, how they’re using the data and it gives you insights that you would not normally be able to get.

[17:58] Dave: I get it. Okay, yes. So as it turns out this is actually something that without really knowing what the terminology was that I kind of ended up migrating my two WordPress plugins to among the way. I had a number of customers that were always begging for I would need to have feature X or I really wish that your produce could just do Y. And I kind of push them off a lot of the time and I said hey, why don’t you go to Odesk and hire a developer on there. We’re really working on the features that are going on and the plugin right now and I don’t have time to do this.

[18:35] And eventually I realized that was just dumb. I mean I’m turning down things that people really want to see in the plugin. When I kept hearing the same feature over and over and over I realized I really needed to either put that into the plugin myself or have them sort guide what that feature was so it was something that was valuable to them. So I started adding what I sort of called it was the custom feature model. But basically it goes like this. Somebody is working with the classified or the business directory plugin and they come to me and they say yeah, I really want feature X, doesn’t really matter what feature X is.

[19:08] And then I say okay, well here’s what’s it going to take to add in feature X. And that feature is something that would be generally useful to the plugin and something that would be useful to the community as a whole so everybody who’s using classifies would want that or everybody who’s using a business directory would probably want that. And then we go back and forth. We get it to their liking. We go back and forth in this interactive process, once we agree upon what the feature is actually going to be, we’ll integrate it into the main plugin itself and then we’ll release that so that they have access to it indefinitely for the future for all their upgrades. And the rest of the community gets a cool new feature added on without them having to do anything about that.

[19:50] So it’s definitely been pretty successful in the plugins that I’ve run so far, I probably do about four figures of revenue of just this custom staff that’s being added onto the plugin in addition to the regular product sales that I’m doing as well.

[20:05] Mike: So when you’re having people do that, are there requests that you deny as well? There’s two different sides of this I think. One is you’re essentially taking feature request from people and charging them for building those things because they need them now. They need them probably on a timeline. So there’s also a flipside to this and that’s the fact that not every request that comes in is something that you can just arbitrarily say yes to. I mean you also have to kind of draw the line some place and say there are certain requests that people are going to make that I just can’t do. Right?

[20:36] Dave: Oh my god, yes of course. So I get probably about 50% of them I put in sort of the outlandish category.

[20:43] Mike: 50% really?

[20:45] Dave: Yeah. It’s really that high. I’ll get people coming in and they’ll say hey, can you do like this whole site customization for me? No, I’m not going to build all these features around the plugin that are for your site for example. Some of them could be some very weirded requests. Once I sort of cut out these outlandish ones there, then I can fine tune that a bit and say look, is this feature that you’re asking for something that somebody else in the community might also want? It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that everybody could use but at least try to think of it, is this something that at least maybe 10% of my other customers could probably use. And then if that’s the case, I’ll try to include it.

[21:20] Mike: I mean that’s just saying that you can double your business overnight by accepting this outlandish request.

[21:26] Dave: Well, but actually it’s another problem and that is a scalability issue. So I have a limited number of develops that work with me on these plugin and if I were to start engaging them and say okay I want you to work on this outlandish site request over here where the guy wants everything purple on his site. Well that guy, once he’s engaged in all that work, he’s not available to do somebody else’s totally reasonable feature request or it might be that outlandish feature request is something that’s going to take him like two weeks of his time to customize for this whole site because it’s very elaborate and it’s very detailed.

[22:01] Well that’s two weeks of opportunity cost that I’m losing and I can’t really use him for priority support request. I can’t use him to build additional features into the plugin that I might want to put in there that are on my long term road map. I can’t use him to do other customer requests that actually aren’t outlandish and might only take a day or two. And trying to get a new developer trained up on that code base is something that takes time and if I can’t keep a developer busy all the time then he’s going to wander off and not going to be available for that.

[22:31] So I have to balance the availability, the cost and the utility really of what it is they’re asking for and see if it’s something that kind of benefits everybody across the board as opposed to just benefit just them in particular.

[22:45] Mike: I also think there’s a bigger problem there in that if you go through this massive undertaking for somebody else, realistically you then have to support whatever those changes and modifications are for this other customer and they’re going to have some expectation of when you come out with a new version of the plugin that they’re going to have access to all those features so then you’re on the hook for supporting them moving forward and it’s really just not cost effective to support them ‘til the end of time even if they are paying 20% of the cost of the plugin at that point.

[23:17] Dave: Right. Absolutely and in fact that’s another policy that have is whatever feature somebody asks for, it’s something that I roll into the main plugin and that’s just really good sense so that if they want to upgrade in the future, they automatically can do so without worrying about whether I took that out or – and I don’t have to worry about okay, I’ve got this custom branch over here that I built for Bob. Did I put all of the bug fixes into Bob’s branch that I put into the trunk? I don’t want to deal with that particularly when you’ve got dozens and dozens of customers that are asking for custom stuff. You really just kind of want one main development branch and everything is in there so that you can support that in a reasonable way for everybody.

[23:58] Mike: So before the podcast you had mentioned that copy hackers also does this to some extent as well. Right?

[24:04] Dave: Absolutely. There’s actually a slightly different model though. They’re doing product sales directly on their websites. It’s eBooks about how to do amazing things on getting copy that converts and ways to write that are more compelling than when you might just do it off the cuff for example. And when you make a product sale with them, you end up getting added to an auto responder email list and then copy hackers will send you emails about here’s a tip for this and here’s a trick for that and hey did you know this?

[24:37] And then during that auto responder series you’ll eventually get something that says hey, by the way we’ve got custom consulting services that allow you to do things like advanced copywriting seminars, here’s a way that you can get a site review from us. So these are definitely very high end high touch semi-consulting kind of services here but it’s clearly a very substantial part of their business model because they’ve got this auto responder series that’s built around trying to get you to buy these things at the end. So I’m sure that Joanna Wiebe and  company are getting some serious benefit out of this.

[25:15] Mike: So those are some great ways to take the products that you have put out there and essentially start bringing in more services income because of those products. One of the things that I’ve been looking at is how I can do that with AuditShark. And I came up with a short list of things I kind of wanted to go through them with you. And just kind of discuss what sorts of things fall under the concierge category versus which ones fall under the service category. And remember the concierge is essentially assisting the customers with on boarding versus services which is an going up sell that you’re essentially charging them for labor and the value that you are providing for them.

[25:52] Dave: Sure.

[25:53] Mike: So the first couple that I have is installing the AuditShark agent. Seems pretty clear I could offer that as a service and I know that there are companies out there that will charge for setup and installation. But it seems to me this falls more under the concierge service. Do you think I should charge for that or no?

[26:10] Dave: Well this actually reminds me of a quote that’s in Gail Goodman’s Business of Software talk and that is the number one way to get the customer to stay is to get them successful early. So installing the AuditShark agent is absolutely a core piece of your software offering. If they have trouble installing that, would they get any benefit out of your product?

[26:31] Mike: No, not at all. In fact, if they don’t install it, they get zero benefit.

[26:35] Dave: Yeah, exactly. I mean there’s definitely some things that you want to smooth out and make as clear and as easy to use as possible. I remember that quote from Patrick McKenzie at I think it was the second MicroConf. He said you want to script the first five minutes of your application like the invasion of Normandy. This is definitely one of those things is that you want to make your installation of the AuditShark agent the absolutely smoothest possible.

[27:03] But when you’re first starting out, you don’t know where people are going to struggle with that. So this is a great example of early on to make it a concierge service you install it, you get to learn where those problems are in the installation and then you can use that knowledge later to do that scripting of the invasion of Normandy thing like Patrick says.

[27:24] Mike: Right. So the next one was a consultation on the product capabilities and what it can do and how they should be using it. Concierge or service?

[27:34] Dave: I think that one should probably be concierge and once you kind of figure out what product capability they’re asking about the most, this is something that you can probably make a web page out of. So when somebody asks you about that, maybe you can start up an auto responder series and give them the top five things that everybody’s been asking about the product capabilities in that auto responder.

[27:57] Mike: I was almost thinking a webinar actually, free webinar about what it can do for them, how can they specifically solve certain problems that they may be having or don’t even necessarily know that they have.

[28:07] Dave: So you’re thinking it’s more of this is before they’ve really bought the thing as opposed to after.

[28:14] Mike: Well, I think it should be moved to before. So what I find is obviously there’s the tutorials and stuff once you get into the product but before that, people might have questions about how would I use this? How would I integrate this into my business? So I think in some it’s really just educating them about what the product does and why it does the things that it’s doing. So in some ways I think that there are certain information that would be presented after they purchased and there’s other information about that would be presented before they purchased. And I think before, it’s really about what problems it’s solving and then afterwards it’s about how to do that with the products. And when I came up with this, it was really about after they have purchased.

[28:54] Dave: Yeah, that totally sounds like a concierge thing. It was educational that that seems like something that you want to give away.

[29:00] Mike: So the next one was a consultation on what the customer should be doing security wise. So essentially have a discussion about for example how many servers they have, what type of servers they are, what they’re doing today, what they might want to be considering doing in the future, how AuditShark can kind of play into that, what are your thoughts on that?

[29:18] Dave: I think you can go either way on this one but I’m going to lean towards concierge because AuditShark is early enough in its lifecycle that you might actually find this space of customer’s engagement to be actually very educational for you and find things that AuditShark might be missing as key or core features. So probably I would say concierge.

[29:44] Mike: The next one is building custom policies for customers where if they have specific requirements that need to be met, an ISO standard for example or specific things in PCI or the SAQ’s compliance, something along those lines that they need. What do you think? Where does that fall? Would that be under service or would that be under concierge or does that depend a lot on how much effort it takes?

[30:03] Dave: I would say this is something that you might keep in your back pocket as a customer could say hey, I’m really interested in AuditShark and I’d like to sign up for two years but I need the small change to a custom policy and then you look at it, it actually is really a small change. So that kind of thing you might do as a concierge to sort of land the customer but if a customer comes to you and says I need this totally complex custom policy that you’ve never done before, that feels like kind of service thing like it’s an add on to an overall product that they might be getting there. I would say it would very much depend on the situation and the customer’s request.

[30:43] Mike: So it seems like in cases like this, it might be a little difficult to put together something along those lines of a standard offering to say it’s going to cost $300 per X because there’s such a variable time commitment on our sides to be able to do that and in addition it may be something that depending on what it is that they’re specifically asking for, maybe something that could be integrated into the product or maybe something that’s completely custom for that. And maybe that falls under two different packages, one where there’s a lower cost if it gets integrated into the product or a higher cost if it’s more of direct consulting engagement.

[31:16] Dave: Yeah, something like that. I would say that this is going to be one of those things that you’re going to go through and figure out how much time is required to build a custom policy. And it might be that you come to this number it says it always takes two hours to build a custom policy of average complexity. And so if that’s the case then you can sort of put a standard price on it. But if it’s anything like when I add features to the plugin, when somebody asks for something, I never know whether it’s a 2 hour change or an 18 hour change. That’s something that my developers usually have to come back and tell me.

[31:49] So I can’t really put standard prices on those features and I think you will know after you’ve done say half a dozen custom policies as to whether you can offer that as a standard thing or you have to kind of estimate it on a per customer basis.

[32:03] Mike: I can do ball park estimates based on just the operating system or the type of application as to whether it would be 80 hours or 120. It typically tends to be one of those two numbers. It depends exactly on what the operating system is and how complicated the benchmark is that they’re trying to have implemented. Something else is reporting I think that when most Saas applications launch, initially they have very, very little reporting. What are your thoughts on where reporting falls into this thing?

[32:31] Dave: You know, based on my experience with reporting and the enterprise java space and previous to that C and C++ reports are almost always so accustomed to whoever that customer needs to find out whatever magic metrics they’re trying to get to that this absolutely positively feels like a service that you would what to as a value added thing. It’s going to be kind of time consuming. It’s going to be customer specific but at the same time it’s going to build high value for them and make them want to use your product that much more. So I wouldn’t do that as concierge for sure.

[33:04] Mike: But aren’t some of those reports that are being built, aren’t they the type of things that other customers would want? If you have a standard SaaS app application there are going to be different types of reports that could be generally useful to everybody. I mean well, aren’t there going to be situations where you’re going to go to those customers and have to make a judgment call and say well, I don’t want to charge you this full amount because this is going to be generally useful to everybody.

[33:28] Dave: Early on the in the product here, I presume that you don’t have any reports built into AuditShark at this point because of where you’re at in the app is that right?

[33:35] Mike: I have one.

[33:36] Dave: Well, yeah, I mean this early in the product probably don’t know what reports the customers are dying to have. So you might say hey you know what, I’ll split the cost of this report with you to build it here but it’s going to be pretty substantial. If you don’t have this report in your application, I just don’t want to get your service at all. That might be something where you say alright, I’ll build it and I will get your business after that.

[34:00] But I think it’s going to be on a case by case basis. it’s going to really depend on the report. If it’s a very elaborate specific report that that customer is probably the only one that will ever want that, well that would definitely be a service. If it’s a generally useful report and it’s something that you were planning on adding anyway, maybe throw it in just to sweeten the deal for the customer or maybe you split the cost with them, I don’t know. I think it’s going to depend.

[34:26] Mike: Part of the reason why I’m going through some of these is to give you guys some ideas about the different things that you can do in your application whether or not you should be charging for them. Another one I came up with was analyzing reports and providing situational base recommendations. And that’s very clearly a service because you are not only looking at a report that is specific to a customer but you’re then providing them recommendations based on the output of that report. So again that’s very much a consulting arrangement.

[34:55] And then the last one was providing remediation services and for AuditShark when it identifies something that’s wrong, the customer right now has to go fix it. I could theoretically automate the remediation but I don’t want to because there are a lot of considerations around that. For example what if something goes wrong, who’s responsible for that, what happens if the machine reboots in the middle of the day? There’s all this scheduling and what happens if something goes wrong and it needs to be rolled back. Is that something that’s possible with the product?

[35:23] There’s a lot of problems with doing that stuff in an automated fashion and it seems to me that making that into a service offering is a very much a value add for the customer and I can charge them based on for example the number of things that I’m fixing. And at that point, the real key to the value proposition here is that I’m essentially rewriting what they’re being charge for. So no longer am I saying give me $50 or $75 an hour and I will work for you for that time period. I’m saying here’s a fixed unit of work which may take 5 minutes, it may take 5 hours but you’re getting a set cost for it.

[36:01] That’s kind of the ideal situation to be in when you’re trying to offer services to people because you’re going to be able to know what your cost are for the time period that you’re talking but you’re no longer billing directly for the hours that you’re working. You’re charging based on the value that you’re providing with the customer, not the time that you’re providing the customer.

[36:20] Dave: Absolutely. In fact your remediation services remind me of exactly what Rob does with HitTail and the article writing service. Wouldn’t you agree?

[36:29] Mike: Totally, yes it definitely does.

[36:30] Dave: Yeah. I mean that was something that Rob didn’t have right away and eventually he realized that was the one thing everybody really wanted after they got these long tail key words is a way to take advantage of that with Google SCO and having that service that wrote the articles for you was a great way to do that. So you might have the side remediation service consulting thing.

[36:51] Mike: Yeah and that’s something I‘ve had a hard time pricing. Some of them are very, very quick to do but there’s also potential for things to go horribly wrong. So I’ve been a little bit gun shy in terms of moving forward with this piece of it. I mean I’m reasonably confident of my own abilities to look at things and say yes or no, this could have major effects on somebody’s systems. But there’s always that possibility I mean whenever you reboot a machine, you never necessarily know what other things have been done on it aside from the changes that you’ve made that a reboot is going to cause those things to service.

[37:24] Dave: Yeah, totally agree. That’s definitely something that you want to have humans involved with. So be very careful there.

[37:31] Mike: So we talked a lot about the cash flow problem with SaaS and some of the benefits that a hybrid model can bring to the table and resolving some of those issues. But where does this hybrid services model really fall down? There’s got to be places where adding services into the mix just simply doesn’t work.

[37:47] Dave: Yeah. I can speak a little bit from experience on this here. One of the places that it really doesn’t scale in my plugin is there’s a point at which I have to balance features that I want to add versus features that customers want to add. And sometimes it’s very easy to thread those two together because I’m just not getting very many customer requests. But like the past few months I got swamped with all these customer requests and so my developers are constantly filling and estimating these particularly client requests and they’re not doing other things that I’ve been trying to push the roadmap along for the plugin or to do releases or other things.

[38:25] And I’m spending more time managing those customer projects instead of going and doing things like training a new support guy or witting documentation for the website or doing marketing or promotion or working on other projects. When you’re working on something like this, you kind of start it out without the intention of it scaling but at some point you get so many requests for it that it stops being able to scale even in a manual manner anymore.

[38:52] You have to kind of setup back and say is this something I want to keep doing? Do I want to expand it by adding another person who’s dealing just with these requests now or do I want to just stop offering it all together and say I have enough customers that I don’t need this to generate my revenue anymore. I want to focus on something else. So that’s definitely something that the plugin have struggled with and continue to struggle with.

[39:16] Mike: Does that give you justification to raise the price of some of that custom work?

[39:20] Dave: it probably does but there’s definitely price points which the customers will simply say that’s not something I’m willing to pay for anymore. I mean I’ve already seen that one. If somebody comes to me with one of the outlandish requests early on my modus operandi was to basically come back to them and say alright, that’s going to be doable but it’s going to cost you $1500. And for the most part, the customers got the hint at that point and said oh well, okay that’s too expensive. I’m not going to do it.

[39:46] Somebody actually took me up on that one time so what the hell was their problem. Once they called my bluff I had to actually go and do it. So that was a good three months of custom work that followed having to suffer through that because there was definitely a lot of back and forth and iteration and I said to myself no, I’m never going to do that again. You really have to be careful about what you wish for there. Raising the prices isn’t always the solution.

[40:13] Mike: Yeah I’ve been at situations like that myself where I gave somebody a price thinking they’re definitely going to say no and then they said yes and I’m like oh shoot. Now I actually have to go do this. But it sort of makes up for it because they’re paying you really well but sometimes the headaches are not just worth the money.

[40:29] Dave: Totally not worth the money.

[40:32] Mike: I think one of the really nice things that this article that we’re looking at as roadmap for this podcast pointed out was that in the early days of the product, think of the services side as a life support or plan B for your SaaS app, I really like that way of thinking of this.

[40:47] Dave: Yeah, that is nice. It certainly does help you get pass that cash flow gap right away which is a major problem for sure.

[40:55] Mike: So to kind of recap a little bit, we’ve talked about the cash flow problem. We’ve talked about some of the benefits of the hybrid model and how there are differences between a concierge service and the paid value add services that you’re offering. Again it’s just very important to keep in mind that there’s a difference between services that you’re offering to on board people which is the concierge side of things versus the services that you are charging them additional money for.

[41:22] And that could be product customizations, it can be analysis of reports. It can be custom pieces of the product that you’re building. There’s a lot of different ways you can provide value with your products to the customers without resorting to writing additional software. Again, this falls very much under the services umbrella and people definitely understand services. With the new SaaS app sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand those.

[41:45] Dave: And the one thing I’d like to close with is that in Gail’s Business of Software talk, another thing that she sort of closed it up what was you don’t really own the gas pedal on word of mouth. The best gas pedal is a great experience and in this particular case, if you do a product and service hybrid you’re going to be giving people that great experience early on so that’s really going to help drive the growth of your business quite a bit.

[42:10] Mike: That’s a great way to wrap it up. If you have question for us, you can call it in to our voice mail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt used under Creative Commons. You can subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups or via RSS at startupsfortherestofus.com where you’ll also find a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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4 Responses to “Episode 156 | Leveraging Services to Increase Cash Flow using a Hybrid SaaS Model”

  1. Guys, I’m sure you know, but the podcast audio at around the 21:00 mark went to left channel only.

    Dogs barking was a nice bonus! 🙂

    Great episode.

  2. Second Greg. Yeah, it was pretty good to start with, then it went to single channel only, and I thought my headphone got issues 😉

    Glad it is not my headphone. Hope you could have a better quality of the audio next time.


  3. Sorry about the sound quality in the second half of the podcast. The second half was recorded in mono while the first half was recorded in stereo. Next week’s sound quality will be better. Thank you for listening through our technical difficulties.

  4. Mike, thanks so much for the mention! I will definitely keep everyone posted on how it goes. I’ve had a couple great projects come through, and I’m hoping to collect more info on what works and what doesn’t to share with other entrepreneurs.

    I love talking with people about their ideas, so if you just want feedback on your idea or an app you’re building, please get in touch! (and that parts free 🙂 ).

    If you’re thinking about signing up for Built From Ideas, mention the podcast and I’m happy to give you 10% off.